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Ears on the coast and eyes in the sky

By Alison Towner, 21st September 2015

A large shark cruising behind a favourite beach break is every surfer’s nightmare. The reality is, this actually occurs more frequently than most water enthusiasts would care to know!

Just a few weeks ago, 13 juvenile white sharks were spotted from a helicopter off the popular Huntington Beach swimming area in California. Although this news briefly made the headlines, the frenzied media panic that would certainly have occurred a decade ago did not materialise. The reason? Knowledge is power, and nowadays we know more about the whereabouts of sharks than ever before. Improving technology has opened up the opportunity to film and detect animal movements in far more challenging environments than was previously possible. We literally have ears in the sea (in the form of acoustic tags and receivers) and eyes in the sky (drones, survey planes, blimps). These tools are in use along the majority of our world’s coastlines today.

In South Africa, where there is a rich diversity of shark species, such technology has supported previous research and revealed that the inshore beach environment is a very important habitat for several species, particularly the great white shark. In other words, the presence of sharks inshore is nothing out of the ordinary! In 2012, 38 white sharks were fitted with smart position only (SPOT) tags in South Africa ( This enabled the public to follow, for the first time, the movements of white sharks as they migrate – and showcased this species’ impressive coastal and oceanic distribution patterns.

Drones are airborne cameras, first adopted by the military to spy on opponents. These devices are now being utilised in marine research and are particularly useful for survey counts of marine life in good weather conditions. The person in control can stand on land while operating the drone, which hovers more quietly than a plane or helicopter.

Gansbaai is a hotspot for shark cage diving in South Africa. We are currently using a range of techniques to answer questions about shark behaviour at this aggregation site compared to other areas where sharks occur in the country. Sharing such information with local surfers in Gansbaai has been interesting. When surfers were shown the photo below, they were not at all deterred from surfing at their usual spots. They understand that they are sharing the inshore areas with white sharks and respect that.

Knowledge is power. We are privileged to have a range of tracking methods to follow sharks these days, and although the technology is constantly improving, there is still much we have to learn. Our ability to communicate new information with the public via social media is more efficient than ever. As long as this information is used judiciously, it enables us to manage shark–human conflict holistically and improve our understanding of shark movements: a promising progression for the future conservation of these elusive predators.

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